Rio Closing Ceremony - via Flickr (Philip Pryke)
Rio Closing Ceremony – via Flickr (Philip Pryke)

The Rio Olympics came to a spectacular end with the closing ceremony at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium, and the end of the two-weeks games means it is time for life in Brazil’s second-largest city to get back to normal. After the athletes leave, the cameras pack up, and the soldiers responsible for a virtual military occupation of the city return to their barracks, the city residents will go back to their routines. As is the case with most other host cities, the aftereffects of the pageantry will probably be fleeting; for Rio residents, daily life will change little, assuming it hasn’t been made worse.

Rio’s games did overcome a spate of issues that many believed would have prevented the games from even taking place (especially in relation to the Zika outbreak), but these Brazilian Olympics also serve as a reminder of the long-term issues that plague the entire Olympic set-up. At the end of the day, much of the infrastructure built for the Olympics, like that of the World Cup two years ago, will likely end up abandoned and in disrepair.

Sadly, Rio is just the latest addition to a long list of cities that have invested more in the Olympics than they probably should have. City officials in Rio and elsewhere argue that infrastructure needs to be built or upgraded with or without games, which is a fair point—except that both the bidding and the planning processes are usually captured by private interests who prioritize their own needs. Budgets invariably seem impossible to stick to – the Rio games were around 50 percent over budget, while the Sochi games went a staggering 167 percent above. Of course, the 1976 Montreal Games might have the most infamous Olympics from a cost perspective: 800 percent over budget, with a full three decades needed to pay them off.

Host countries generally claim these financial losses are recovered by new investment opportunities, and bids to host the Olympics regularly argue the event will spur economic growth. Calculating the profits and losses of Olympic games is a highly imprecise science and can depend largely on interpretation of the figures, but recent evidence put the lie to the idea that hosting the event can be turned into a long-term windfall. Even a study of the Sydney games (one of the more successful) found that “in terms of purely measurable economic variables, the Sydney Olympics had a negative effect on New South Wales and Australia as a whole.”

Rio offers a more egregious example of misplaced priorities. The billions spent in paying for these Games could have been used to combat poverty around the city, instead of bulldozing favelas and carrying out bloody police operations. Far from benefitting, poorer residents were forcibly relocated miles away or hidden behind towering concrete barricades to conceal Rio’s poverty from the global spotlight. All of that infrastructure spending did not change much for the city’s struggling sewage system either. Instead of establishing long-term job opportunities, that money has gone to short-term construction projects that come with no real guarantee of future returns on investment.

A more sustainable Olympics

Despite all of this criticism, there is no question that international sporting events like the Olympic remain a time of hope and inspiration and a priceless opportunity to bring the world together. The question is: can we find a smarter way of dealing with the costs?

One of the more realistic suggestions thus far is to scrap the current system, where any city can apply to host the games. Instead, proponents of this approach argue that a few rotating cities, former hosts from each part of the world that already have all of the necessary infrastructure in place, take turns welcoming the games. According to their logic, having five or six cities rotate hosting duties would save an incalculable amount of spending on new infrastructure. It would also help Olympic locations make use of the priceless experience they gain while putting on the event, experience that is currently being lost every time the Games are moved to a new location. In terms of sustainability, this would also make sense – the stadiums and facilities will never fall into disrepair.

In addition to making sure the games remained truly global, this way of doing things would do away with the controversial, convoluted bidding process. As has been made clear by Sochi and Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, less-than-democratic states like to use the Olympics and other international games in order to legitimize their politics. The massive costs surrounding bidding are also deterring more desirable candidates, to the point where the IOC was forced to choose between two autocratic regimes to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Even with a reduced bidding pool, candidates have gone to extreme measures for a leg-up on their rivals. Looking at an ongoing French investigation into corruption allegations surrounding the bidding for the 2020 games (which ultimately went to Tokyo), multiple observers see a ploy by France to bolster the Paris claim to the 2024 games.

The question would then come down to which cities would be included in the rotation. As it turns out, both Tokyo and Paris would make for strong candidates. In 1964, Tokyo hosted what some consider one of the most successful Olympics of all time, and the city’s world-class infrastructure and governance were cornerstones of its successful bid for the 2020 iteration (as was the chance to retrofit and reuse venues left over from 1964). For its part, France just recently wrapped up the 2016 UEFA European championship without major incident (at least outside of Marseille).

Other proposals to make the games more sustainable include having one permanent host city, or having different sports split up across different cities – cycling in London, swimming in Australia, and tennis in Beijing. All of these proposals offer their own benefits and drawbacks, but the fact remains that the cost and waste of the Olympics in their current form are hard to justify. The IOC should take these proposals seriously, even if they threaten to cut into its massive profits.